Conservatives walk immigration tightrope at Rochester byelection

In the early hours of Friday morning, as David Cameron braces himself for another electoral rebuff at the hands of Ukip in Rochester and Strood, Barack Obama will be preparing to make a prime time statement on America’s broken immigration system. There the similarities end.

Cameron will be learning his Rochester candidate has been crushed in a relatively safe Tory seat by an uncharismatic, accident-prone candidate willing to entertain ideas about repatriation of EU migrants.

Obama is expected to announce plans that would protect up to 5 million unauthorised immigrants from the threat of deportation as well as provide work permits. The political cultures of Europe and the US on immigration could hardly be more divergent.

In the short term, Cameron will be anxiously scouring the horizon for any sign that another of his backbenchers will desert, prolonging the agonising cycle of defection, byelection campaign, Ukip media circus and crushing defeat for the Tories.

In the medium term he will be thinking how he can find a new language on immigration. It is a fantasy that the kind of proposals likely to be tabled by Obama could ever get a hearing in the UK, but Cameron could use the muddled talk of repatriation by Reckless to draw a line and end the demeaning chase for the Ukip vote.

He would, after all, dearly like voters to focus on the “red lights flashing on the dashboard of the economy” and the risks posed in deserting the Tory economic stewardship.

But Rochester makes that strategy near impossible. Instead Cameron is preparing an immigration speech designed to set out his negotiating battle plan with the EU on free movement of workers.

He insists the public are the boss and if they want this issue sorted, then as a public servant, he just has an obligation to deliver.

He knows his previous pledge to cut net migration to the tens of thousands leaves him short on credibility, so what he will propose will be specific and recognisable.

It cannot afford, in the words of a British Future pamphlet published this week, to be regarded as “another conjuring trick”.

But even now the lawyers, diplomats and politicians writing this strategy cannot agree whether migrant quotas, emergency brakes or new barriers to social security make diplomatic sense or will be enough to assuage those that long for the simplicity of a UK with its own borders.

The fear for Cameron is that those attracted to Ukip will continue to see even the general election as a giant byelection – a chance to send Cameron a message about how tough he should be in future negotiations with Brussels.

The danger is that this mindset will depress the Tory vote and make the election outcome even more of a lottery.

Rochester has also forced Labour to shift ground on immigration, believing its key equality and fairness messages will be drowned out if it does not respond to public opinion.

It is no longer going to change the subject whenever immigration comes up, but even now it is struggling to find the right balance. Last week Ed Miliband – in his “Here I stand. I can do no other” speech – vowed there was no future in out-kipping Ukip.

A week later and two days before the byelection, his shadow cabinet were announcing curbs on benefits for those EU migrants out of work and, for the first time, for those in work.

The promise of British tax credits for British workers is inherently discriminatory, and was supplemented by a statement by the shadow home secretary, Yvette Cooper, that Labour wanted fewer EU migrants in the country since it believed unskilled EU migrants on short-term contracts were damaging the UK labour market.

She told BBC Newsnight: “In terms of the migration that happens every single year, I think there is a problem with low-skilled migration because of the scale and pace of it.”

She added: “We would like to see lower low-skilled migration from Europe,” adding that “countries should be able to take a different approach” to migrants settled for a long time as opposed to newcomers.

Labour does not resort to the same rhetoric disparaging Brussels, and insists it has had talks with unnamed French and German socialists that suggests a deal can be struck consensually.

But Ed Balls, the shadow chancellor, has been quite explicit. Labour should have no fears, he said, in calling for a revision of the Treaty of Rome if that was necessary to achieve Labour’s goal of a fair movement of workers within the EU.

Ukip will probably enjoy another surge after Rochester on the assumption that it wins. It may take until Christmas and beyond to see whether Labour and the Tories have found the policies, and language, finally to burst Ukip’s very durable bubble.

Powered by article was written by Patrick Wintour, for The Guardian on Wednesday 19th November 2014 22.54 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010